Lost and found in translation

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Lost and found in translation

Lawyer ALEX SPITERI GINGELL speaks to DAVID DARMANIN about a local translation firm he founded after he decided not to take the traditional career path most lawyers would aspire to.

In the past, fresh law graduates had prospects of healthy earnings, especially when most of them took up the trade with the promise of inheriting the client base of their fathers.

Besides, all it took for young professionals to become successful those days was to rent a room in some village where there was a demand for services and start a practice there.

Times have evidently changed. Most law students nowadays can only hope for a tough start-up job at a firm, earning pocket money throughout the first few years. Like any other job, young lawyers will have to show their worth and any proof of outstanding performance may, with a dose of good luck, result in an adventurous journey up the career ladder.

Alex Spiteri Gingell wanted none of that. At 32 years of age, he has never had a boss.

“Like many fresh law graduates I found myself in a situation where I had to be creative in order to build myself a career, in a scenario where there was a large supply of lawyers,” he starts. “I knew I could not limit myself to practicing law at courts. Besides, I always felt more motivated working on my own, to reach my own objectives rather than those on someone else’s agenda.”

Spiteri Gingell got involved in the translation business some time before Malta’s entry into the EU. When the Acquis Communautaire was being translated, he had taken a contract with the Maltese government for two years, first as a freelance translator and then as a reviser.

“The fact that we made it into the EU was a major factor for this industry. We risked not making it, and had we not, my career would have had to change drastically,” he said.

Luckily, at the time the Acquis Communautaire’s translation to Maltese was completed, it was confirmed that Malta was soon to become a full member of the EU, and more importantly, that Maltese would be officially recognised as a European language.

“This was the time when business started coming in at a steady pace. Different EU agencies were looking for resources in the field, and I was getting chosen. There were a lot of opportunities, but also a lot of challenges. We had set up Transcripta, with the aim of building the reputation for the rigour in quality and research we now have. But we were also facing the problem of not finding enough human resources for the job. Linguistic and technical resources were also limited, so we had to go through extensive research to find the appropriate words in Maltese for technical terms in other languages. You see, this wasn’t just a quick buck for us. We took it seriously, it’s not like we’re translating comics.”

Indeed. Spiteri Gingell talks very passionately about his job. Besides having muscled up for the industry by pursuing a post-grad in Translation and Interpreting studies, he is also a fond lover of languages as well as a talented artist. In spite of his directorship and doctorate, he also has an evident bohemian streak, and an approach to life that is somewhat reminiscent of student life. Sporting long hair, Spiteri Gingell jokes about running late due to the time spent on his perm. But really, if he runs late it’s because he is one busy man.

“I recently moved to Valletta because, besides my affinity to the atmosphere the city offers, living here is also a great time-saver. I run an office from here too, and being so close to amenities, I don’t waste time in traffic. I find this refreshing. My working hours are as long as 12 to 16 hours a day, so I cannot afford wasting time,” he said.

In the little free time he’s left with, Spiteri Gingell also works on music productions at a studio he owns by his Valletta office. He is also a practicing lawyer specialised in intellectual property law consultancy, one of the very few on the island.

But back to translations.

“The translator takes the role of the writer, communicating in a different language,” he said. “This can at times prove to be very challenging. Imagine trying to bring out a scenario that is directly linked to one culture, but in a language that belongs to another culture. For example, an Italian text could quote a person saying that another person’s Italian is horrific, and this person could provide examples of bad Italian. How do you bring this out in a different language? Do you just change the entire cultural backdrop and say they are actually speaking in English? Wouldn’t you then have to change the country where this conversation is taking place? We do not translate words. We translate meaning. In a translator, there is the scientist, who is fully aware of the technical skills involved and the artist, who will need to use his creativity to transpose a situation well enough to make it equally understandable to the reader in a different language. Also, we have to do this invisibly. In journalism for example, if you write in English after having spoken to someone in Maltese, you are free to put in your own comments to better describe the situation. This is not allowed in translations, although in extreme cases we insert footnotes.”

We all know of gaffes such as the one featured in Malta’s constitutional treaty where “advisory bodies” was translated into “iġsma tal-pariri”. Or the one where “the inhabitants arrived in successive waves” was translated into “l-abitanti waslu f’mewg ta’ suċċess”.

But these booboos are not exclusive to Maltese translations only.

“In Prague, a sign on a cab stand that should have read ‘Cab Service’ reads ‘No miscarriages, guaranteed’. This really looks like the product of machine translation,” he said. “But then there are other cases of misinterpretation, that are more linked to cultural realities. The European Central Bank in Frankfurt for example, was running a campaign for their new headquarters with the slogan ‘A new home for the Euro’, but when translated into Slavic languages, the phrase faced very harsh opposition due to its reminiscence to a communist slogan. The translation may have been right, but it just did not fit the culture.”
Translations may be new to Malta, but this is no excuse for the lack of a comprehensive policy, or for the missing political will to generate the drive needed to re-popularise the Maltese language.

“We do supply the local market, but on a very small scale,” he said. “We are bilingual in Malta, so if any translation work is needed, this is either made in-house or sadly, kept in English only. This is ironic when you see that all EU documents are translated into Maltese. But then, the MFSA website, the MEPA website and MiC’s own website are only available in English. Another issue is with street signs. Whereas you will find them in different languages in other countries, like in Ireland, where you also have translations in Gaelic on street signs – in Malta our signs are only in English. This reflects very badly on Malta, when considering the effort and the expense the EU is going through to recognise Maltese as an official language. The local market could offer good potential for translations if government exerts the right pressure.”

So far, Transcripta is run by two partners working enough hours to cover the work of four full-time employees. Besides, a pool of 20 freelance translators were carefully chosen by the firm, but not all work on a full-time basis.

“We are now in the process of employing two full-time translators to work from our offices. We have to go down this route. European Commission translations for example, come in at short notice very often, as per agreed. We almost translate in real-time. With people working from the office, one can easily delegate the urgent matters. It would still be possible to work this way if we were to retain our current setup, but it takes up a lot of our time, which can be used for administration and development,” he said.

Translation companies in Malta are easily comparable to construction or catering companies in the 1970s. Almost by coincidence, operators found themselves working in a virgin industry at the right time. They have now built enough expertise and experience to hog the market at a time when it is developing too fast for new players to set up and compete with ease.

“There’s less opportunity for translation companies to set up nowadays. In a virgin market, you first get a gold rush enabling new entrants to gather the required expertise, but as they do so, they become more established,” he said. “So newcomers will have a steeper hill to climb if they are to penetrate the market successfully. Furthermore, those tenders we find most attractive will provide for very strict requirements related to experience. In one case for example, we had to prove that we translated a minimum of 5,000 pages of technical documents related to Chemistry. They will not take your word for it, of course. In such cases, we are required to present references from previous clients and respective invoices as proof.”

Tender-eaters, but still, Transcripta still choose to maintain a very low profile. They do not let out company information easily, and besides the fact that they are one of the main suppliers of the European Commission, we do not know much about their client portfolio.

Also, Gingell does not like to be perceived as some young entrepreneur who’s entered the business world using some cliché business formula he is convinced he invented. So for the sake of this story, we will portray him as being the right person, at the right place, at the right time. Like one of the Beatles. But what has become of his peers at the law course? They must be jealous. He denies.

“There are new openings for people wanting to pursue a career in law nowadays. First of all, I formed part of the lucky generation. At the time we graduated, we saw a boom of new openings in Brussels, within a large number of EU agencies, legal agencies and administrative entities abroad. Also, a law degree allows flexibility, as the knowledge acquired is wide-ranging. With dentistry for example, it’s a completely different story. Also, there are new areas for lawyers. To mention a few, a large number of lawyers are now employed with iGaming firms, and within legal areas that are completely new to the market. Telecoms law and IT law for example, were very underdeveloped up to a few years ago. Nowadays we depend on them. So it is true that we have seen a very large number of lawyers graduating recently, but then there are also many new opportunities,” he said.

But what about lawyers with more traditional career aspirations? What about the ambitious student wanting to set up a law firm after gaining some experience? Is there space?

“That’s not easy, clearly, but it’s not impossible either,” he said. “Really and truly, it boils down to potential clients and personal contacts. Involvement in organisations or coming from well-connected families will obviously help a great deal. There is work for everyone. As time passes, society becomes more regulated, and with new laws sprouts the need for more lawyers.”

Source: http://www.businesstoday.com.mt/2008/09/24/interview.html
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“In Prague, a sign on a cab stand that should have read ‘Cab Service’ reads ‘No miscarriages, guaranteed’.

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